On risk taking as a teacher and jumping in the deep end

IMG_2509

I’ve recently run a number of TD sessions which show or “teach” teachers how to deal with specific new skills, or how to work with a new age group or try something out they may never have done before in class. The sessions were on teaching young learners, or on using tablets in class, or on learning how to use a tablet for the first time. In all cases, we were working together, trying things out together and talking about the experience together.

Now, as the sessions progressed I was struck by the amount of risk taking which was involved throughout. This reminded me of the following idea and image which the theatre director, Peter Brook, mentioned during an interview with his son and filmmaker Simon Brook for a documentary.

On risk taking by Peter Brook
On risk taking by Peter Brook

Although he is talking about acting and actors, I couldn’t help but think that the same applies to us teachers and teacher trainers/developers. When we go about doing something we have never done before, and in teaching this may often happen throughout our life cycles as teachers, we leave our comfort zones. The fear of doing this will differ according to the task at hand.

I myself can think of moments in which I had to do something which went well beyond my own boundaries of what I do with confidence. Teaching adult beginners is something I had always found immensely difficult. I always felt as if I was taking a huge risk and I avoided this like wildfire. Yet, a couple of years ago I decided to deal with this. I taught an adult beginner group in front of CELTA candidates. I was so nervous I hardly slept the night before, planning the lesson and mentally rehearsing it. This was a way of reducing the risk of the situation. It was a good strategy, which helped me tremendously.  It allowed me to go through the experience.

I needed to jump into this specific side of teaching in order to move forward and see things from a new perspective. I needed to break my established patterns. One of the things I have often found myself saying to students is that we are always learning something new.  And this applies to us teachers as well. There are moments in which we need to cross new straits of water.

As Peter Brook says, the minute we become less scared about something, the easier it becomes to let ourselves go and try something new. Once you you embark on the journey, a new sense of being and belonging starts to be created and we go beyond our own limits. He talks about breaking patterns, preparing the water and being able to jump in and swim freely.

I wonder whether in teaching it’s only about preparing the water? Can’t we, apart from preparing the water, also choose what water to jump into? You see, there is such a difference between jumping into water contained within a swimming pool and water in a river. The river flows. It poses a far greater risk, but also provides a tremendous amount of opportunities. Yet, if we are far too scared, we will miss the opportunities and not jump at all. Perhaps a safer first step may be called for. The pool provides a safer environment, which is limited by borders. These borders may provide a first essential limit. So, we feel safe about jumping in, knowing there is an edge to clasp if we need it and that the water won’t flow too far….

So, perhaps the answer lies in preparing the water and selecting which type of water to jump into.

And then all that needs to be done is to jump….

A Space for Stories: Stories in Space

Hevea brasiliensis: Seringueira tree seed / Rubber tree seed

 

If there’s one thing that’ll make me stop what I’m doing and just listen, it’s when someone starts telling a story. The act of listening to a story is possibly something that takes me back to my childhood and that may explain my fascination for stories. Storytelling has always played a key role in my own language classroom practice, yet I’d never addressed this explicitly in presentations in seminars or congresses. It’s something which I certainly brought into the classroom based on my own first teaching experience in Primary school in the UK, when stories and storytelling played such a significant role in the work I did and it’s something I’ve kept up, being able to explore ideas a bit better with the different levels and age ranges of EFL learners.

Apart from the stories we hear as children from storybooks and those we read ourselves, I’ve always enjoyed listening to the stories people tell us based on the objects, people and places which mean something to them. This has always seemed far more organic and visceral and as such, makes a story more memorable and meaningful, for example:

– the story of a rubber tree seed and how this evokes fond childhood memories as well as a longing for times past, and you see this in the narrator’s face as the story is told;

– the story about my mum and her pet crocodile and how for a whole week, when she was seventeen, she looked after it and took it for walks on Icaraí beach. I picture her walking, feeling so sure of herself with that crocodile tagging along.

– my own story of  the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens and how I loved to visit it as a young child and count the rabbits, mice and squirrels on it. Just like a familiar story which a child enjoys listening to over and over again, this little routine of finding and counting the animals on the statue was done on an almost a weekly basis and being able to look forward to this meant the world to me. (I visited this statue again two years ago, during a beautiful Sunday morning walk with friends along the park. How wonderful it was to see a little girl skip around the statue, then stop to find and touch the animals and count them.)

The Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Gardens
The Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Gardens

Once stories become more memorable and meaningful, then what also emerges is emotion and involvement, both for the storyteller and the listener. We have the chance to (re)live specific moments and experiences and make sense of ourselves and of the world around us. Stories give us the chance to savour the intensity of life itself, without making any sort of excuse for experiencing this intensity. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer puts this quite bluntly to us:

“We live on the surface of our planet. Human life happens on a shell as thin, relative to the size of the earth, as an egg’s, or as thin as the paint on a wall. We have lifestyles on the surfaces of our lives: habits and cultures, clothes, modes of transit, calendars, papers in wallets, ways of killing time, answers to the question “What do you do?” We come home from long days of doing what we do and tuck ourselves under the thin sheets. We read stories printed on even thinner paper. Why, at the end of the day, do we read stories?[…] Stories rub at the facts of our lives. They give us access – if only for a few hours, if only in bed at the end of the day – to what’s beneath.” (pp. viii-ix)

It was with all these thoughts in mind that created a session on the possibility of using different storytelling techniques in class in order to foster language exploration through this medium. Any medium which grabs our attention, which invites us to become part of a greater picture, is a wonderful resource for us teachers and one we can tap into on a far more regular basis.

The first version I gave of this session was at a BRAZ-TESOL Brasília Chapter event in May 2013 and the final version took place at this year’s IATEFL in Harrogate. It’s a session which has undergone changes, largely due to the changes we need to make in order to adapt to a plenary, talk or workshop format. But like any narrative which gradually unweaves itself, it’s a session which finds its own pace and direction. A great deal depends on the participation of those present in the room. The session requires that all of those present weave their own stories/narratives. They may feel free to share ideas, they may feel threated by sharing ideas, they may decide not to share ideas because the intensity of the emotions and which can’t be voiced at that given time. Any option is fine. Yet, the session is one which makes participants see storytelling from a new organic perspective. It’s as much their own journey into what lies beneath as a session which shows different techniques to get learners/people to tell stories.

So, because of the different nature of this session, I decided not to share the PowerPoint presentation through Slideshare etc., but rather describe some of these activities. A word of warning, however: in every group I’ve done one of these activities, the outcomes have been completely different. It all depends how a given group of learners react to the activities; it depends on their own life stories; it depends on how they are feeling that day; it depends on how you, the teacher, are feeling that day…and I think that this is what is so exciting about this…what emerges from the learner is what we are going to work with as teachers. My main intention here is just to share ideas of how to spark off stories, how to build up narratives through different activities. How teachers use these ideas to develop language work in class is up to them, though sometimes the options are quite obvious. (Please note: the activities on the whole are things we do in class, some with a slight twist. If any of these ideas are part of a resource book or written about by someone else, please let me know so that I can give them credit.)

Making stories memorable through objects

ballet shoes

Objects carry specific significances for different people. Why we keep an object is generally linked to the emotional value it may have for us. When we bring an object into class and tell a story about it the tactile element of the object itself will make the story quite different. It’s not the same as just showing a photo of the object. The story becomes immediately tangible to others. So our attention is immediately engaged, our desire to listen to the story and to find out more about the object and the person.

Activity:

1) Ask learners to bring an object into class and tell a story about the object. They need only speak for a minute or two, working in small groups of three. (Depending on their level, learners may wish to prepare something at home, which may involve rehearsing their narrative. But there is no need to encourage them to write down the story. Part of the success of this activity depends on the spontaneity of the language used and the ability to focus on narrative flow as they tell the story. )’ The teacher may wish to model the activity by telling his/her own object story.

2) As learners tell their stories, you may find they automatically react to the stories. The teacher can monitor the groups and provide help when needed. The idea at this stage is to ask for one of the learners in the group of three to re-tell their story to the others. The groups may choose the story they feel needs to be told and encourage them to work collaboratively on enhancing the narration of the object story before the performance.

3) A good follow-up, not only for learners to share their stories, but also to provide the teacher with an extra resource for language work, is to record learners’  contributions via Voxopop, for example. (http://www.voxopop.com/)

Making stories memorable through people

stars

The idea for this activity came from the writer Mark Haddon and a task he carries out with his students in the writing workshops he runs at the Arvon Foundation. We’re all used to thinking up characters in a story by traditionally going through their physical description and then saying something about them. But what if we changed this and created characters which emerge through significant life events and interact with other characters? What if the narratives emerge from the meeting of these characters?

“We covered the table in a huge sheet of paper and I put a constellation of big dots all over it, labeling each one as potential turning points in the lives of the characters we were trying to write about, birth, death, divorce, leg amputation, discovering you’re adopted, coming out…take these dots, I said, and connect them with a line, and you’ve got a life, take these other dots and connect them and you’ve got another life, we’re looking at an almost infinite number of novels sitting in front of us.”                (Mark Haddon speaking at 5X15)

Activity:

1) Hand out an A3 sized sheet of paper to students seated in groups (about 4 people per group). Ask them to draw a few stars on the sheet of paper. Ask each of them to select three stars and for each star think of and write down:

(a) a life event (a marriage, a birth, first day at school, etc.)

(b) each student selects three stars and links these up (a good idea is to link the stars with a specific colour): this is now the life story of a character. Name your character.

(c) each student now has a character, with a name, and a life story which contains three significant events. These characters are now ready to meet each other in a narrative which is going to emerge as the characters’ lives intertwine.

The possibilities are endless now and how the teacher decides to progress with this, or better still, how the students decide to progress with this may give rise to quite an exciting new narrative building format.

Making stories memorable through places

We often bring to class photos of places to act as a stimulus to set a context and location for a story. However, an alternative is to bring a sound into class, or ask the students to do this themselves, and then beginning creating a story around this sound bite. Today with smartphones we can all quite easily record sounds and play this back in class.

Activity:

1) Close your eyes. Listen to the sound below and imagine the scene. Be ready to describe the story of your scene to another student.

2) Tell the story of the scene you imagined. Decide between the two of you which of the two stories will be told to the other groups. Work in pairs on improving the narrative so that whoever is listening to the story really gets a feel of the atmosphere and the feeling of the scene. (This can be done either in writing or students can actually find a quiet spot and record themselves telling the story. The idea is for the teacher to monitor and provide support at all times. Enough time needs to be given to this activity to allow for work on language to be done and a fair amount of rehearsing as well. Again, the type of narrative which emerges will be quite different from pair to pair, as will the language chosen. But there is an underlying thread which is atmosphere and feeling.)

3) One of the things we can encourage is the idea of re-working a story and this means it’s useful to encourage learners to keep their work saved somewhere. An idea might be to encourage them to use Google Keep as a means of saving text, images, audio etc. It can’t be shared between  people, yet it’s a nice way of saving your own work.

google keep

I also think that by working with stories through a variety of media, we move closer and closer to the art of creating multi-modal digital fiction. By bringing together a combination of text, sound and images to tell a story we allow learners to experience new literacies and we take a step towards Transmedia storytelling, which already permeates our lives (through advertising and the branding of films) and is a well-known “genre” for many of our learners, especially teenagers.

If you would like to find out more about multi-modal digital fiction, I strongly recommend you access the Inanimate Alice homepage to find out more about this.

inanimate alice

Making stories meaningful through emotions

Being able to latch on to an emotion and use this as a springboard for the start of a story is quite an amazing way to start things off. It can produce story beginnings such as this one mentioned by Mark Haddon (see the video link above) when he went into a school to work with 8 and 9 year-olds. The children shared their story beginnings and a girl read this out:

“They were sitting on the edge of the world. The baby was dead…”

Something that we often do to get stories emerging in class is to take in photos/images to act as a stimulus for the creation of a narrative. The problem with this is that the way I read a specific image may not be the manner in which you read and interpret the same image. In fact, the image may also conjor up no feeling or emotion whatsoever.

So, just so that we understand this, one of the final activities we did in the session was to look at the four images below and decide what emotions they evoked in us.

Have a look now and think: what emotions do each of the images evoke in you?

four options 2

All four images create a strong emotion in me and would be perfect to help me start off a story. Let’s remember, however, that all of these pictures mean something to me because three of them were taken by me and I’m in the pic-nic photo.  As we did this activity in the different sessions I ran, the reactions I obtained were always completely different. Many teachers mentioned how very difficult it was to make an emotional bond with an image in which there were people they did not know. Others said it was easier to use the black and white photo and the flower photo to help unleash an idea or emotion. Some said that the images featuring people imposed specific relations which impinged emotions on them and so this blunted their creative possibilities.

Once we discussed this and saw how a task we often do in class with a specific purpose can backfire, we then worked on thinking of alternatives which could help us access our emotions as a starting point for a story. What became clear was that this is something that we can actually discuss with learners themselves and they can then bring in their own images, or alternatively, an artefact, a sound bite which they feel would work for them.

A final point about working with emotions to add meaning to stories and to actually help us start a story is that the way we collaboratively build up these stories and share them is a key issue. The seating arrangement in class has to be such that it allows for this moment of profound sharing. Being able to sit in small groups and also sit in a large circle with everyone is very important.

Being able to work effectively with stories is not only about finding the space in the classroom for us to build these stories, but it’s also about seeing the potential for story-building moments with the resources we have around us: the linguistic, physical, intellectual, emotional, historical and social resources we have in all our learners. And then, it’s about weaving a little bit of magic with the stories they craft.

 

References:

Safran Foer, J. (2008) Foreword to Bruno Schulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles & Other Stories”, Penguin.

 

Deconstructing the learning/teaching space

This text was initially written for the Editorial page in the Cultura Inglesa Teachers’ Portal-August 2013. Since posting it, I felt the need to add a few elements to the text itself and so I’ve posted it on my blog in an extended format.

We as teachers have become so used to the four walls of the classroom environment that it is as if it has become an extension of our teaching persona. This recently led me to reflect on a few questions which I think we can ask ourselves and I’ve also had the chance to ask a few teachers following the opportunity to observe their lessons.

– How many of you would ever dream of teaching with the door open?
– How many of you would give up your chair at the front of the class and feel happy sitting in a circle amongst your learners?
– How many of you are ready to allow learners to group themselves as they will and move tables and chairs around the classroom?
– How many of you would feel happy swapping the IWB for a simple display board or, for that matter, tablets scattered across learners’ desks?
– How happy are you about sitting on the floor with learners?
– Are classroom walls part of our learning/teaching space? How do we use them?
– How many of you see the school environment itself as an extension of the learning/teaching space?
– How many of you see spaces outside the classroom environment, such as parks, squares, playgrounds as a learning/teaching space?

It’s not easy to ask ourselves these questions.
It’s not easy to justify our answers to these questions either, however we may answer them.
Sometimes we as teachers have specific beliefs about our “place” in the classroom. Sometimes our beliefs are at peace with the teaching environment in which we work. However, sometimes these beliefs are not matched by what is required of us in the educational institutions where we work at.

Changing or relinquishing a traditional “teaching position” has immense pedagogical, physical, metaphorical and psychological implications both for us as teachers and for the learners themselves. This is what makes it all such a fascinating and challenging experience.

In July this year I was lucky enough to take part in a course run by Luke Meddings on Teaching Unplugged. It was a three-day course which sought to challenge participants to re-think the learning/teaching paradigm and all its possibilities. One of the things we did on the second day of the course was to experience a change in the learning/teaching scenario. We left the “classroom” and went to Parque Lage, in Rio de Janeiro, for a “plein air” afternoon. This was our new learning space.

Parque Lage - Rio de Janeiro
Parque Lage – Rio de Janeiro

The moment our physical space changed, so did the way we reacted. The first thing we all did was to find a space to huddle as a group. But a park is a park, full of natural interferences: children, parents, flowers, trees, birds, animals, smells…
So how do you concentrate on what you are doing and not on the other distractors?

Course participant and friend Bruno Lages distracted and yours truly equally distracted by Bruno's distraction.
Course participant and friend Bruno Lages distracted and yours truly equally distracted by Bruno’s distraction.

Or is it okay to be allowed to be ambushed by distractors?
Can’t distractors also add to the collaborative and creative learning process? (As a learner who was always ticked off for “daydreaming” during lessons, I still defend the right of any learner to be distracted during a lesson. Maybe as a learner I just needed that breathing space between one algrebraic equation and the next to be able to cope with it? Maybe it was the daydreaming which actually kept me going with something which was so immensely difficult for me. But maybe I’m just finding an excuse for being bad at maths!)

The real and visible “threat” of the distractors meant we all had to listen to each other far more attentively. We really had to look at each other as we worked to keep our focus and keep on task. We negotiated meaning and content far more intensely during our discussions. Time was under our management and we all had a task to complete before the whole group gathered together again for debriefing and sharing. But we were free to organize our presentations using the resources and note-taking devices we wanted.

The debate and exchange which ensued, as the sun gradually set in this lush landscape, was one of the most pedagogically rewarding experiences I have ever had in my 23 years of teaching. We gathered round a fallen tree trunk.

photo (6)

We were happy to sit, stand or lean on the tree trunk. When someone looked tired, we just swapped – there was giving and taking – we suddenly became more sensitive to each other’s needs. We wrote on paper, on mobile phones, on tablets, some drew diagrams. We passed the paper around or our devices so all could see what we had written. We had no physical walls to surround us, but there was unity and a feeling of belonging…that space we had collectively created was ours, and ours only.

So, how much of the teaching/learning space we work in is limited or contained by our physical reality and our preconceived ideas about what a learning/teaching space should be like? Doesn’t it have a great deal to do with the affective dimension and how we as teachers and learners collaboratively construct our teaching/learning spaces?

Addendum: My personal element of distraction when I was at Parque Lage

One of the things which distracted me when I was working with my group happened when I was looking at the children playing on swings and the seesaw. And I just thought: what completely different perspectives we get when we swing on a swing or go up and down on a seesaw. The swing is completely hedonistic and individual, unless of course someone pushes you, but still, you have your back to them. The seesaw is all about looking at each other in the eye, understanding each other and working collaboratively. Hmm, I thought all these things in the blink of an eye and then I was looking at my group again.

photo (8)

Framing the world of words: what do YOU see?

Foto taken by Alan Seabra His view of me looking at my view.
Foto taken by Alan Seabra
His view of me looking at my view.

(This is another of my immensely reflective posts based on loads of things which run on the tangent with the world of ELT, but which currently serves as a great source of inspiration for what I like doing in the classroom with learners and in my work with teachers.)

I arrived in Liverpool for the IATEFL 2013 conference on a Sunday so that I could have a day to do a spot of sightseeing. It would also give me the chance to go to the TATE Liverpool. Visiting the TATE Liverpool was something I’d set as a personal goal. In 2004, when the IATEFL conference was also held in Liverpool, I found myself without enough time to visit the TATE, much to my frustration (I think the friends I was with then may actually remember this…I wonder if they do, Patricia Blower, Virginia Garcia and Janine Barbosa?).

This time I managed to make it. And we had just about enough time to go upstairs and visit the DLA Piper Series: “This is sculpture” – a retrospective look at the history of modern and contemporary sculpture, sculpture seen from a wider perspective including objects, installations, pictures, video etc. The curation of this display was very innovative. The context in which the sculpture was set out meant there was an intervention in the manner in which we were made to look at the selected pieces. Walls were awash with bright colours, not a simple white wall. This was a 21st century statement surrounding the pieces themselves…the manner in which today we feel this tremendous need to “interact” with everything we see. This also helped us re-frame the pieces of art we were looking at, bringing differing views, differing interpretations and clearly stimulating different emotional reactions.

Jeff Koons “Three Ball Equilibrium Tank"
Jeff Koons “Three Ball Equilibrium Tank”

This feature is in fact highlighted in some of the rooms where there is a screen showing excerpts of the film directed by Mike Figgis which shows people reacting to the sculptures. They filmed the general public, art students, school goers expressing their reactions to the sculptures, some exhibited within the gallery itself, but others set up in challenging and unexpected contexts. Watching these videos is an experience in itself. Wonderful to see how the language we use to express our thoughts regarding any piece of art will also be wildly varied, amazingly rich with a myriad of possibilities of sharing your exact thoughts.

You can see this in probably what is my favourite film out of all the ones shared on the TATE site, based on the Jeff Koons “Three Ball Equilibrium Tank” installation. Some of the things the young people said were:

“No talent went into creating that and the only thing that is imaginative is the idea of putting basketballs into a fish bowl”

“I disagree because I think you need to look at the process, it’s not always necessarily the end product that’s come about it’s like what’s gone into it….”

“A basketball will always be a basketball no matter what you do with it coz I don’t think there’s any other way to look at a basketball.”

What I enjoyed so much about this was their reactions, their ability to listen to each other, to exchange ideas. And if you listen closely, it’s amazing to see how the ideas they come up with feed off each other, they incorporate ideas mentioned by each other in order to argue against them. We have a true dialogue of ideas: of young people looking carefully at something, listening to each other, reacting and interacting. Young people interested in what they were looking at, talking about and listening to. It reminded me of something I’d read:

“Looking is a very positive act. You have to do it deliberately. Hearing is the same. If you concentrate on music, you’re going to hear more.” (Said by David Hockney in: A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, by Martin Gayford, p.86)

As I watched the videos I immediately thought, isn’t this the sort of thing we can do in our ELT classrooms or learning environments? We so often say that our teenage students react with a degree of boredom to the input we provide them with. A series of questions arose in my mind, all without answers…just mulling over them:
Is the input we provide to get them talking and exchanging ideas sufficiently stimulating?
Are we creating the right conditions to really foster interaction and dialogue?
Are we really able to “grab” their attention? How can we do this?
What in fact does interest our learners?
What exactly drives them to participate actively in our classes?
How far can a teacher promote interaction based in his/her own interests and hope that the passion manifest in this actually become contagious and stimulates the learners themselves?

It is exactly because we can almost guarantee that each of us will see the world differently that when we look and hear something we know we are going to conjure up different stories and views. And it’s when we confront these differing views that gaps emerge to be bridged, and it makes the prospect of interactional exchange all the more exciting, real and meaningful. It creates the need to talk, to exchange ideas, to communicate. This is, at the end of the day, what we always aim to foster in our classrooms as we need to use language to learn the language.

(A huge thanks to Alan Seabra for the photo, who in a serendipitous moment decided to take it and then to show it to me. Thanks for a memorable afternoon together just looking at and talking about art.)

My view: framing the Mersey from the TATE Liverpool.
My view: framing the Mersey from the TATE Liverpool.